The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) now recommend that people wear a face mask in public to help stop the spread of Coronavirus. There are three types of face masks that are recommended for the protection from Coronavirus, but they vary in how effective they are at filtering the virus so we have explained the differences in the suggested face masks for Coronavirus below.
When should I wear a face mask in the UK?
From 15 June 2020, the UK government confirmed that everyone in England has to wear a face mask, or face covering, on public transport and in public places where it is not possible to stay 2m apart from others. From 13 July 2020, it became compulsory to wear face masks in shops, airports, post offices, supermarkets, hairdressers, places of worship where the 2m distancing is not possible. Police have the right to fine those who fail to abide by this rule and people will be refused entry to shops and public places if they are not wearing a face covering.
People who don’t wear an adequate face covering could be refused travel on public transport and may face a fine of £100.
People exempt from being fined:
- children under the age of 11
- people with breathing difficulties
- disabled people
The government has stipulated in their Covid-19 recovery document that “Schools and other education or childcare settings should not require staff, children and learners to wear face coverings. Changing habits, cleaning and hygiene are effective measures in controlling the spread of the virus.” This means children under the age of 16 do not have to wear a face mask in school but they are advised to wear one on public transport if they can put on a face covering without assistance.
It will also be mandatory for you to wear face coverings from 15 June to GP practices, chemists and hospitals in England . Taxi and ride sharing companies like Uber have also announced that they will only accept passengers if they are wearing a face covering.
Which face mask should I wear to protect myself from Covid-19?
Since the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to prevail for many months until a vaccine is found, it makes sense to understand the best face mask options for Coronavirus. There are three types:
The respirator is a tight fitting circular or trapezoid shaped mask which forms a firm seal around the nose, mouth and chin and is held firmly on your face by ear loops or elastic bands to the back of your head. These face masks are made of a fabric designed to filter the air of impurities and are based on a grading system to show how much protection they offer. In Europe they are certified as a Fitering Face Piece (FFP) so you will find FFP1, FFP2 or FFP3 stamped on the mask or on its packaging.
FFP stands for Filtering Face Piece
The higher the FFP number, the more protection the respirator can provide if it is used properly. Respirators provide good two way protection, by filtering both inflow and outflow of air so they protect both the wearer and the people around them.
FFP1 respirators are not recommended for Coronavirus protection because they are the least filtering version, offering minimum aerosol filtration of 80% and leakage to the inside of maximum 22%. FFP1 masks are most commonly used as dust masks suitable for hand sanding, drilling, and cutting.
FFP2 respirators are currently used by NHS workers for protection against the Coronavirus. They have a minimum of 94% filtration percentage and maximum 8% leakage to the inside. FFP2 are the suggested mask for Coronavirus protection and are mainly used in construction, agriculture, and by healthcare professionals against influenza viruses.
The N95 respirator is the US standard which is roughly equivalent to Europe’s FFP2 and China’s KN95.
The N95 and KN95 masks not only protect you from splashes, sprays, and large droplets, they also filter out 95 percent of very small particles including viruses and bacteria. The N95 and FFP2 masks are designed with elastic straps that fit at the back of the head, whereas the KN95 mask is designed with elastic that loops over the ears to hold the mask in place.
FFP3 masks are the most filtering respirator and are reserved for NHS key workers, dentists and surgeons. With a minimum filtration percentage of 99% and maximum 2% leakage to the inside, they protect against very fine particles such as asbestos.
The N99 respirator is roughly equivalent to Europe’s FFP3 and filters out 99 percent of small particles, viruses, bacteria, splashes and droplets.
Both FFP2 and FFP3 respirators are the best face masks recommended for Coronavirus protection. Respirator masks are considered PPE equipment by both the European Union and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These have been in short supply in recent months, but many brands are now producing them and are available to buy here. In order to make sure there is enough supply of PPE for health workers, the government has recommended non-medical face masks to the general public.
Disposable respirators are generally only suitable for 8 hours wear unless they become:
in which case they should be discarded safely as recommended by WHO.
2. SURGICAL MASKS (also known as medical masks)
The surgical mask is a rectangular disposable mask which fits loosely around the mouth, covering you from your nose to your chin. It is designed with pleats or folds and has a hidden metal clip to tighten the mask around the top of your nose for a better fit. ‘Surgical’ refers to ‘rectangular masks’. The simple design of the surgical mask, features either elastic straps that loop around your ears or long ties that can be tied at the back of your head, which, if worn properly acts as a filter on your face that prevents you from excreting breath droplets and preventing fluid droplets from others entering your mouth or nose.
Why are some surgical masks labelled as non-medical masks?
Beware, there are a lot of blue or white surgical face masks that people mistake for medical masks but they are not! The only way to tell if they are actually a medical mask is to check the packaging for a CE mark, Declaration of conformity document and for the label: This is a medical device/mask. The CE mark shows that the mask conforms to the stringent European EN 14683 standard and offers 98% bacterial filtration efficiency. A mask manufacturer has to have its masks tested in the lab of a Notified Body like the BSI which carries out the ISO 17025 accredited test and also has to apply for an EU Type Certificate. Once masks pass accreditation, they must be sold with the declaration of conformity (this document is either found in the packaging or provided as a website link for reference).
Surgical face masks are classified as a medical device and must have a CE marking.
While a surgical mask will help block large droplets, splashes, and sprays, it does not filter very small particles in the air transmitted by coughs, sneezes, or certain medical procedures because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and your face. Surgical masks are primarily designed to protect vulnerable patients from medical professionals, stopping the wearer (e.g. surgeon) from spreading their germs when coughing/sneezing/speaking. So these medical masks are designed to protect patients, not to protect the wearer.
Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once. If your mask is damaged or soiled, or if breathing through the mask becomes difficult, you should remove the face mask, discard it safely, and replace it with a new one. To safely discard your mask, place it in a plastic bag and put it in the trash. Wash your hands after handling the used mask.
Also labelled as Type II face masks, surgical masks are a 3-layer design: one layer of non-woven fabric at the top, one layer of thick melt-blown fabric in the middle and one layer of non-woven fabric at the bottom.
Type IIR face masks are the best surgical face masks made up of a 4 ply construction, because they include a splash resistant layer to protect against blood and other bodily fluids. R means that they are fluid resistant. This kind of mask offers further protection than standard surgical masks.
3. FABRIC/ NON MEDICAL FACE MASKS
These fabric face coverings are made from a variety of woven and non-woven fabrics, such as polypropylene and are not tested to meet standards or evaluated for efficacy. Fabric face coverings are better than wearing no face covering at all because they catch water droplets (with the possibility of containing Coronavirus) from your breath, to reduce the chances of others from catching the disease.
Even if you don’t show symptoms, you could still be a spreader of Coronavirus so if the vast majority of people wear face masks, we will be able to prevent the spread of the disease. With a bit of creativity, many people have been making hand-sewn fabric masks themselves while supply of surgical masks and respirators was low.
Although a cloth mask is not as effective as a medical surgical mask or respirator, we are more likely to avoid transmission of a new Coronavirus by wearing a face covering. Therefore, many choose to make their own face masks from cloth, while others choose to buy them. Face masks are a simple and effective way to flatten the COVID-19 curve and stay safe.
Fabric/Cloth masks may give a false sense of security as they offer little protection compared to surgical masks and respirators.Their purpose is to offer one way protection, to capture bodily fluid leaving the wearer. A study showed that homemade face masks are half as effective as surgical masks and 50 times less effective than N95 respirators, so they are not the best face masks for Coronavirus.
Image via SmartAirFilters
Should I wear a mask with a breathing valve?
Not in public, let us explain:
Respirators with a breathing valve are more comfortable to wear compared to other types of face masks because they don’t fog up spectacles or sunglasses and the exhalation valve prevents the buildup of heat and humidity inside the mask.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, these face masks were the gold standard for healthcare professionals and were the most sought-after product online until the CDC urged people to stop wearing them, because face masks with valves only protect the wearer and not people around them from infection. The valve on the mask can expel droplets from the wearer’s breath into the surroundings and still spread Coronavirus.
Since we’re all in this together and want to prevent another outbreak of Coronavirus, we need to look out for each other and not just protect ourselves, so please only wear respirators without a valve in public.
What are Non-medical KN95 Face Masks?
Many medical face masks and respirators produced in China that have passed certification standards and deemed suitable for health workers to wear in China are being sold as non-medical face masks in the UK simply because they haven’t been tested and certified in Europe with a CE marking. This is because testing and approval in the UK takes months and many Chinese manufacturers are unable to bear the costs of getting masks certified in different countries. So don’t be surprised if you see some KN95 masks and medical masks from China labelled as a non-medical device. Of course there may be fake KN95 masks being sold online. The best way to check if a KN95 mask is genuine is to check the approved NPMA manufacturer list here.
Remember, face masks alone will not protect you from Coronavirus – they are recommended in addition to practising social distancing (keeping 1m away from others), exercising daily, consuming healthy meals and following proper hygiene practices, whether that is simple hand washing or wearing latex or nitrile gloves.